Mixing Board Studio Session: Former Dunkin’ CMO Tony Weisman on How Growth, Creativity & Purpose Can Operate in Harmony

What’s most striking about Tony Weisman is not the 30+ years of award-winning experience as a marketing leader. It’s not that he was the former CMO of Dunkin’ Brands when they went through transformational change or was the CEO of Digitas North America after nearly 20 years at famed agency Leo Burnett. It’s that someone with his experience is waking up every day excited and enthusiastic about where marketing, brand, and the social purpose of organizations is headed.

If you want jaded, go elsewhere.

It’s also no coincidence that Tony is a highly sought after board member and advisor to top business leaders going through great change. The Mixing Board community member was named a Forbes World’s Most Influential CMO, a Business Insider’s 25 Most Transformational CMO, and an Adweek Brand Genius.

Here are excerpts from this week’s Studio Session between Tony and Mixing Board founder Sean Garrett. Tony and Sean talk about the changing role of the CMO, employee’s increasing impact on brands and how to carve out the time to stay strategic.

SG: Let’s start with the role of the CMO, how that role is evolving, and what’s changing about it. A million years ago, in 2010 or so, the role of CMO seemed very different than it is today. What’s changing in that role, and what’s your take on it?

TW: I think the most important thing about the chief marketing officer role now is that it’s more like a chief growth officer. Every brand, service, marketer of any sort these days has new ways of figuring out how the business is performing and actually selling to consumers in ways that they didn’t have in the past. The board, the investors, the CEO, and the CFO have become increasingly more focused on performance.

And so I think it’s great because I think it adds a layer of accountability. I think the Chief Marketing Officer of yore was a basically a cost center in the P&L and is now hopefully both cost and revenue.

I grew up in the world, to go way back in time, where there was above and below the line, which basically was a function of whether you were paid on commission or fee. Those of us who live above the line tended to be evaluated on things like preference, likeability, and unaided awareness. Those below the line were measured on things like traffic, and sales, and unit movement.

Then you would go out and say, “Well, I need a brand team and a performance team.” An organization that I moved into, they were separate teams with separate budgets with separate reporting structures. That’s all merged because digital used to be the realm of the technocrats and now it’s basically everything. I think it’s great. I’ve seen different manifestations that I love. I see chief customer officer, chief experience officer, and of course, chief growth officer, any one of those to me feel more modern than just chief marketing officer.

SG: Some old souls would say, “Well, wither the brand.” What about creativity? What about the big ideas?

TW: Well, I don’t think these things exist independently but I’ll take a step back and say that many performance marketers over very many years degraded the brand in an effort to generate a short-term sale. And so these things sat in opposition to one another. I don’t think that is the case today. If you walk the streets of Brooklyn, you’ll see retail locations and paraphernalia for brands that were born in performance, Warby Parker, Allbirds, right? Brands that started out as strictly e-commerce that are now fashion brands.

The role of brand, used to be framed in the context of purity — we stand for these values. The stronger the brand, the better the pricing pressure you have. Allbirds is a great example. They were an e-commerce business that evoked a brand at the same time through their various social messaging. Now they have retail and pricing power.

I think you’d have a relatively hard time developing a lightweight fashion shoe and charging what Allbirds charges right now on Amazon. The power of the brand now has never been more important. It manifests itself in how you show up in your social media, how you show up in your CRM, what you look like on your site. Marketers have to speak the language of the CFO and the board.

To be fair, I think the really, really sophisticated marketers have figured out that a portion of the spend should be behind pure brand messaging, whether it’s about altruism, or purpose that then gets measured in the context of — we’re seeing more hits to the site, we’re seeing more velocity, we’re seeing more premium pricing pressure. We absolutely know for sure that X, Y and Z competitors have tried to knock us off and they can’t. That’s where I think you can say, not only did that money build these metrics of preference, likeability and relatability, but this is how it affected the P&L.

SG: I get the question a lot from investors and startup CEOs who ask, “Should my first hire in marketing be a performance marketing hire or a brand marketing hire?” You’re saying basically it’s the same, it’s a false choice.

TW: Well, I do think it’s a false choice. I will say that the people who know how to really optimize an e-commerce site, make the APIs work and make sure that it’s properly connected to supply chain, distribution, or whatever, that’s a skill set. It’s worth its weight in gold. So I would say yes, best case you, you want someone who can supervise both. The problem with performance only is when the heat of the month is closing down on you, you will drop coupon after coupon, and you’ll do anything to generate that last purchase, which could be degrading to the brand over time. In very short order, this is going to be a false construct and people are going to be able to do both.

SG: What would you say about the purists who say all this is just a commodification of creativity?

TW: I would say that A, they’re wrong. And B, if you look around our industry today and you see these creative shops flourishing with refugees from big agencies who are doing brilliant work… I mean look at Red Antler. Red Antler is a business that’s made a lot of brands famous who are e-commerce brands, right? That’s just one of dozens of examples.

I think they have chapter and verse on the more creative the work, the better the returns and the more engagement you get. I have no time for people who say this is just commoditizing it. I think that’s just uninformed. You’ve got to think about it like rowing. You’ve got to have both oars moving at the same time, in sync, and feeding each other. You need people who have the skill set to be able to think performance and creative are two parts of one whole.

On the one hand, the performance side tends to be a relatively rational set of skills. The creative side tends to be a more emotional, subjective, and taste-based. I think you need people who have both the ability to be analytical and have good taste. At the end of the day, the best work requires somebody to say, “I like your taste, I believe in it.”

A completely different thing to look at, is look at the work Extra just did about how we’re all ready to come back into the world. That was a commercial that was absolutely right tone, absolutely right insight, proper use of the product that was designed to go viral. And it did. Right? I don’t know how many people texted it to me or texted it to you, but it just blew up, right? So tell me that’s not creativity at work. You and I both know that people thinking about Extra gum were not thinking about Extra gum a month ago. So I think that’s a great example of creativity still having a way of penetrating the zeitgeist, and I’m sure they’re going to have very healthy second quarter sales.

SG: Speaking of multiple rows, rowing in the same direction. At Mixing Board, we have very intentionally linked marketing people with comms people. In your view, where should comms sit in the organization? What is the role in either supporting the performance growth side, or should it stay completely in the lane of reputation and trust, or are those also one-in-the-same?

TW: I’ve seen it done successfully both ways. First of all, there is IR, which is a very distinct function that might be launched at the CFO. Then there is reputation, risk, data security, DEI. Things that are sort of commingled within the C-suite with people officers, and speak often as much to internal audiences and recruiting as they do to external audiences.

I think that is a separate function that ought to have separate reporting into the C-suite. I’ll give an example, Peloton. Peloton a few weeks ago made a very, very bad stumble in their initial response to the treadmill and had an excellent recovery in which they said the right thing to do is to recall them. You don’t get that level of pivot, quick decision, right decision, unless you’ve got your calm CEO and board really connected. If you run that through marketing, I think you’re making a big mistake. Because as I said, if your marketing team is as performance-oriented as they should be, they’re going to view this a lot through the lens of sales.

Now in the long term, this is enterprise equity reputation level, and I would very much advise CEOs to have somebody in that seat who speaks truth to power, is courageous, and willing to advocate at a very high level from the CEO and onto the board for the tough calls. Every business has them now. Every business right now in the last week convened emergency meetings on ransomware. And then once a month for the last several years, we’ve been having meetings on data security. I mean data breaches cost some very high profile CEOs their jobs, right? What you say, how you say it, who you say it to, and how quickly you say it in the wake of all these things, food, safety, ransom, data, and privacy is materially important to the enterprise value.

Comms that has to do with generating earned media around your marketing institutions sit with the marketing team. Social media sits there. I’ve always enjoyed hiring really, really smart PR agencies that think creatively, and whether it’s events, or stunts, or stories, who understand media relations and who know what people want to write about. I think that’s hugely important. A lot of the work we did at Dunkin’ that really resonated was work that we found a way to make it get into the press. I think I’ve been a big fan of PR broadly my whole life. My family, my father, my sister were PR executives.

I was always a little frustrated when somebody would say, “Well, they didn’t really write the story we wanted.” Right? The truth is journalists are by nature skeptical and their job isn’t to print press releases. Their job is to put some sort of angle on your message. If you’ve got really smart people saying, “Well, this is ultimately the message we want to get out. This is a way to frame it so that somebody might be interested in writing about it. This is how they might write about it. And that feels good to us.” I mean if you’re aiming for getting press releases, frankly you’re aiming down the wrong road. You need people on your team to really understand what journalists think and what they want to write about. They never want to write what you want them to write about because that’s your own home movies.

And so I think those functions broadly speaking to me just fall under marketing. If you get good at this, and there’s all kinds of companies that are really, really good at it, your earned media goes up and your paid media goes down. I think earned media now is a whole lot cheaper and it’s just a whole lot more believable. I’d rather read about Mixing Board in a story in BI than I would in some ad that popped up on my Facebook.

SG: I think there’s a couple of paradigms. One, I think early startup CEOs feel like their best shortcut to growth is to get some “earned media.” They feel like if they can get an article that’s going to suddenly get some attention, it will lead to more growth, which is going to lead to hiring a VP of engineering, which is going to lead to all this stuff. I think that’s okay in that very early phase. But then at a certain point, comms doesn’t become about growth. It becomes about something bigger and more holistic, like you said, especially with your internal audience. How you position this, how you think, how you see what’s happening in the world and how to connect back to the organization — because you’re obviously not working in a funnel or in a vacuum. And so I think it’s an interesting dance for companies as they evolve — how to reframe its proper role.

TW: I think you’re right and you’re spot on with what people seem to want initially. I also think early on your audience is VCs or B and C round people, et cetera. Don’t confuse that with customers. They’re both equally important, but don’t think an article in TechCrunch is going to necessarily drive a lot of consumer traffic.

SG: A big topic obviously that’s come up a lot is the role of the employee and their impact not only on things like political conversations, but just in general, their impact on “the brand.” What has to be resonant with them in order to be resonant outside of the company?

TW: It’s an excellent question and something that I would really hope to see more companies think really carefully about. There is no more compelling way to share a message than from an employee to their social network. There’s just nothing that comes close in my mind to somebody posting on Facebook or LinkedIn — “so proud that we’re doing this.” Because it’s personal. Sometimes you know people are doing that because they were asked to and they’re just passing along a press release. But like, “Really proud of the way Betty and Pete worked on this for the last year and so proud to see this come together.” I mean it has the personal impact of a birthday wish or a graduation.

When we were at Dunkin’, everything we did, I made sure there was a component that was sent out internally to employees first that was immediately sharable. So franchisees, store employees, corporate employees, everybody, “Here’s a gift. Here’s why we’re doing it. It’d be great if you could say something like this.”

It totally changed, it did two huge things. One, we got enormous amounts of virality out of that because everybody’s individual network is pretty big. Secondly, our people loved feeling like they were a little bit of an insider role and a big part of helping business. So I think that’s on a promotional newsworthy end.

I think you’re also hinting at really important issues, I mean on DEI, and political issues, et cetera. I do not envy the leadership of the big tech platforms who cannot possibly keep everyone happy. Are we donating? Are we not donating? Are we taking a stand? Are we not taking a stand? Something I’ve always said, “Well, whatever we’re talking about here in this meeting is going to get out.” You’d always have someone going, “We got to keep this to us. We have to keep this super confidential.”

The second key thesis for me is neutrality is not an option. You know as well as I do for years, a company would be like, “We’re not going to take a stand.” The truth is that almost any stand you take, you’re going to alienate. My view is if you don’t take a stand, you’re going to alienate everyone, right? You have to take a stand. And ultimately you win the internal employee award, you win the recruiting award, the retention award, and the customer award ultimately for being transparent and saying, “this is who we are, this is what we believe in.”

You absolutely have to have forums for your employees to feel like they have engagement, and that their voice is being heard. You absolutely have to bring them in early in the decision and you absolutely have to be completely transparent with them on where you stand. And the younger, earlier in their career people are far more swayed in their professional choice by a company’s purpose and reason for being on Earth than people like me when we grew up. I think that’s great. I think those are the kinds of things that are forcing accountability on the environment and health and safety issues that matter. I’m delighted to see them put that kind of pressure on companies.

SG: Take me inside of Dunkin’. One thing we talk a lot about at Mixing Board, is how do you find the time to actually think, and plan, and strategize, as opposed to react and just deal with the daily flow? How did you create space to take a step back, and think out a plan? Even on a daily basis, how did you create space to actually be more proactive versus reacting to what was coming over the transom?

TW: Well, it’s a really important question in a lot of ways. Perhaps primarily mental health, physical well-being, which I think we’ve started to pay more attention to lately but we have yet to really understand the depth of the mental health crisis that the last year has put us all through. So I hope people really pay attention to this. I’d also say that I was less successful at it than I would want to be, but I would say there’s a few ways to do it. The first is force yourself to spend time with people you respect outside the business — physically away. So whether, I’d go to cities like New York or wherever and you have conversations, meetings, dinners, et cetera, with people who were either partners or people I respected in the business. If you set a dinner up three weeks in advance, we will work around making it happen.

I think the second thing is, in every business that I’ve been a part of I posted in every meeting room and shared throughout the company the rules for meetings. The problem with meetings is they feel like progress but they’re not progress. Progress is real progress. Meetings tend to be live newsletters where everybody can “know what’s going on.” And so you often have a couple dozen people in a meeting when three people could have done it.

People go to these meetings because they’re scared to death that they’re going to get caught not knowing what’s going on. And so I used to be very clear that knowing what’s going on is not the currency of the room, results are. Whatever the specifics that our results are, that’s the currency of the room. Whatever you need to do to drive this level of sales or change the brand or whatever, do it. Knowing what’s going on is fundamentally worthless to me because you can find out. And then I was just very, very strict about setting an agenda in advance, sending the material in advance. Sitting around a table for hours at a time just clicking through slides isn’t really conversation.

I don’t think anything replaces physical movement. To actually put time in your day to process. Nobody figured this out better than Steve Jobs in walking meetings. So at Dunkin’, we have a three story building in a parking lot in the middle of nowhere. There’s nowhere to go, but I would, in all weather all year long, I’d say, just take people out and walk laps around the building. You have no devices, fresh air, you’re moving and you’re having a real conversation. There’s outside thinking time with people not involved. There’s flow time, which is basically in the shower. I always tell people, “The best idea you’re going to have all day, you’re going to have in the shower. So take long showers.” I’m a big advocate of long showers. But if the thinking time you’re referring to has to do with interaction with someone, kicking ideas around, go for a walk.

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